19th hole: Jodie Mudd’s story a tale of how fleeting golf prowess can be

UNITED STATES - MAY 08: Jodie Mudd poses by his portrait by Connecticut illustrator Chris Duke in the new clubhouse during of THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, on May 8, 2007. (Photo by Stan Badz/PGA) Stan Badz/PGA Tour

19th hole: Jodie Mudd’s story a tale of how fleeting golf prowess can be

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19th hole: Jodie Mudd’s story a tale of how fleeting golf prowess can be

Two themes surface when you mention Jodie Mudd to guys who played the PGA Tour back then.

“Jodie used to have a gorgeous golf swing. He made the game look so simple.”

“I’m not sure anyone was really close to him.”

“Funny how you remember things about someone. He had a huge forward press as he started his swing. Then he just flushed it.”

“He was a quiet man.”

This week is when Mudd makes his annual appearance on Tour, albeit only as a ghostly figure on Players Championship highlight reels. It’s been 28 years since he won and almost that long since he walked away from the game.

It was no surprise to the golf cognoscenti when Mudd held off Mark Calcavecchia by a single shot at TPC Sawgrass in 1990. The soft-spoken Kentuckian always let his game speak for him, and it had plenty to say. He won the U.S. Amateur Public Links back to back in 1980-81. In 1982 he finished as low amateur at the Masters and turned pro. Five years later he finished T-4 at Augusta National, one shot out of that epic Mize-Shark-Seve playoff. He got his first win at the FedEx St. Jude in 1988 and his second a year later at the Byron Nelson. Seven months after that Players victory he added the Nabisco Championship, which has become the Tour Championship.

Forgotten man of the PGA Tour

Four wins in a little over two years, plus a half-dozen top-7 finishes in majors. And then it was over. He didn’t win again. Didn’t even play in a major after 1992. Mudd was on his way to becoming the forgotten man of the PGA Tour, which is just how it seems he wanted it.

Mudd made 25 starts in that 1990 season, but by ‘95 he was down to nine events, surviving just one cut. He played five tournaments early in 1996 but didn’t make a weekend. On Feb. 9 of that year he signed for a second-round 76 at Torrey Pines. It was the last round he ever played on Tour. He was 35 years old.

“He was still exempt when he walked away,” says one of his nodding acquaintances from that time. “That never happens out here.”

Ask his contemporaries why Mudd walked away – back when 35 was considered a golfer’s prime – and you’ll get a variety of theories.

“Burnout, I heard.”

“He got into breeding horses.”

“He got Baker-Finched.”

Among pros of a certain age, that’s shorthand for guys who dive into a rabbit hole of swing theories and never reemerge, invariably losing their game, their mind and their Tour card.

No knows why

No one really knows why, because Mudd never really told them why.

Not many elite golfers walk away from the game these days, not when a lucrative living beckons well into their golden years on the geriatric circuit. There were some well-known exits on top, of course: Bobby Jones after his Grand Slam, and Byron Nelson off to ranch at age 34. There were others, too, now almost forgotten.

Ralph Guldahl was the best player in the world in the late ‘30s when he took time off to write an instruction book. He was said to have gotten so far inside his own head that he couldn’t play worth a lick afterwards, and he was done at age 30. Bill Rogers won the Open Championship in 1981 – one of four victories that season – but seven years later was a director of golf back home in Texas. Burnout.

Their names are reminders of how short and perilous the journey from triumph to despair can be in professional golf.

In the spring of 2010, 14 years after he left the game and a week after he turned 50, Mudd showed up on the PGA Tour Champions. He made four starts and told a reporter that he was having fun despite periodic back pain. Then just 44 days after he became eligible, he left that Tour behind, too, and went home to Kentucky.

I reached out to Mudd to ask if I could call him to talk about that Players win and what came afterward. A few hours later, I received a short but polite email that hinted at a man happy with his life and thoroughly uninterested in poking at the long-extinguished embers of his career.

“I appreciate your interest in an old past champion,” he wrote. “But I can’t offer you any enlightenment other than I have an eight-year-old daughter that’s keeping me young. Cheers, Jodie.”

And with that he was gone again. Gwk

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